Two weeks ago, Dad died.
Strangely, it feels like it was about two months ago.
In my last blog post, on June 3, I mentioned how illness can cause a person to step out of time. Dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in February and made all of us promise not to mention it on Facebook or online. He was determined to fight the cancer and underwent several weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. For the first week or two of treatment, he continued working, but as he grew weaker, he stepped out of time in order to preserve his energy. He looked forward to healing and returning to work. Unfortunately, a number of complications led to his rapid decline. He didn’t have enough weight on him to provide the energy his body needed to fight the cancer. (That naturally low weight is a genetic trait I share with him. While many people think this is a good thing, the inability to easily gain weight becomes a very serious problem during illnesses.) He couldn’t eat normally and the feeding tube that was inserted had issues. Also, the radiation caused lung problems.
Erik and I were in the Twin Cities the Saturday before Dad died. We got a call from my step-mom, who had been faithfully nursing him, that he had taken a turn for the worse and the end was near. We picked up Daughter and headed back to see him in St. Cloud Hospital. Erik then went to pick Young Son up from home to bring him to the hospital.
Each family member was given private time with Dad to say what we needed to say. Those of us close to Dad knew that he was not an emotionally demonstrative guy. It was tough for us kids growing up with him because we didn’t really know whether he loved us. He never said so. As I grew into adulthood, I came to understand that he loved us but couldn’t say so. When he was diagnosed with cancer and called to tell me, he told me he loved me before he hung up. You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was so shocked. In his last few days, he said “I love you” to all of us probably more than he’d said in his entire life.
I told him how much it meant to me that he would answer my questions (and I’m full of questions!) during lunch hours in the summer as a kid and how he taught me that girls could do anything boys could do. He said in reply, “Sometimes better.” Through our talk, I was crying (as I am now) and he tried to comfort me, even though he was the one in the hospital bed suffering. We held hands for a long time, until my hand was too heavy to sit on his chest.
Sunday and Monday, family gathered around in the hospital, visiting with each other and trying to keep Dad comfortable. For a guy who didn’t like his feet touched after having polio as a kid, he sure enjoyed foot rubs during his final days. (The little toe on one of his feet was tucked up on top of his other toes, a result of polio treatments. Because of where it was, you would think that it’d be a tough, callused toe, but it was very soft. My stepmother drew a little smiley face on it at the hospital. As a historian, I want to capture this detail because I don’t see enough of this kind of physical description in the historic record.)
Eldest Son came to see him Monday. Right after Erik and I saw him and his girlfriend off on their return trip home, Dad told everyone he thought he only had minutes or hours left. The wee grandchildren were called and they spoke to Grandpa, who perked up with each call. Never underestimate the power of wee grandchildren!
Dad made it through the night and was brought home for hospice care on Tuesday. He was so much more comfortable at home! And we all swirled about him, conversing and sharing photos and stories and sitting with him. Tuesday night, my brother John arrived from miles and miles away. He was the last to arrive and after Monday’s close call, we desperately hoped he would make it in time.
On Thursday night at about 10:30 p.m., after a few days of stepping out of time with Dad, I got a call for an alarm at work. Erik, Young Son and I went out to meet with police and check things out. It was a false alarm. Because it was so late, we headed straight home. No sooner had we gotten into bed when Young Son brought us the phone. It was my sister saying to “Come back, now!”
When we arrived, Dad had just passed.
As I looked at him, I thought, “Where did Dad go?” And I fully understood why we human beings need the belief in an afterlife. He was here just a second ago. And now he’s not. Surely, he has to be somewhere.
I’m still wrapping my head around this loss. I keep thinking I see Dad out and about when I glimpse guys that look like him. While I’m coping pretty well most of the time, the smallest unexpected things cause me to choke up. We borrowed Dad’s truck this week to haul a trailer. I didn’t even ride in the truck, but holding the key, an object Dad would have used daily, made me pause to think of him.
Tonight we watched yesterday’s episode of The Colbert Report on Hulu and Stephen paid tribute to his mom, who died in the past week. That brought the tears, as did hearing the song “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men when I heard it the day after Dad’s death.
Goodbye, Dad. I love you and miss you.